congo watch: ten years
Today marks ten years since the overthrow of the Mobutu regime in what was then Zaire. On May 17, 1997, forces led by Laurent Desire Kabila marched into Kinshasa, took control, and renamed the country the Democratic Republic of Congo. Thus, today is an important national holiday in the DRC.
I began studying central Africa as a freshman at Baylor in the spring of 1997. I had been assigned a research project about the refugee crisis in Africa's Great Lakes region (the area bordered by Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, Tanzania, and Zaire/Congo). It was a fascinating and challenging project, as tens of thousands of refugees moved every day. I followed the series of events in Zaire that spring with great interest in the type of government the new regime would implement, with sadness at the plight of those who suffered in the fighting, and with hope that the new regime could calm things down.
On and off, I have been thinking about the Congo for ten years. Since 1997, we've seen two or three (depending on how you count) international wars engulf the country. At one point, six foreign countries were involved in the conflict one way or another. Local-level conflicts over land continued simultaneously with the war. In ten years, millions were displaced from their homes, some over borders to refugee camps in Tanzania, Uganda, Burundi, Zimbabwe, or Angola. Some were left to fend for themselves in their home country as internally displaced persons. The major rebel parties reached a peace agreement in 2003, but fighting still continues in the east of the country, as it has for more than ten years now.
Four million people died.
At least 40,000 women and girls were raped.
Today I received an email from the professional association of those of us who study Africa, asking for a witness on a political asylum case. This is pretty routine, but I actually read this one, because it asked for a witness who could attest to the nature of politics and life in the DRC. It's just another daily reminder of how much people suffer, how bad life is when a government is incapable of governance, when there is no peace in the land.
It's been ten years since that day of hope and confusion. I hope with all my heart that the Congolese people will not have to endure another decade like their last one.